Projects of Exploration: Honor Something Ordinary

This is the fifth in a series of projects for students. These projects were created to provide a forum in Metalsmith for provocative and innovative work. They are assigned by a different professor each time, insuring a wide range of approaches to issues and themes in metalwork and jewelry.

This fifth project was assigned by Lynda Watson-Abbott, Professor of Metals and Jewelry at Cabillo College, Aptos, CA. The problem was to create a wearable piece of jewelry or a functional object to honor something or someone ordinary, that is, special to you but not necessarily renown for any other reason.

Honor Something Ordinary - Rebecca Coldren, Placenta Box
Rebecca Coldren, Placenta Box with Chromosomes. Photo: N. Slagle

Teaching jewelry/metals in an art department is a twofold task while guiding students through the learning of a technical vocabulary and an understanding of materials and processes, the teacher must also provide exercises that expand the student’s ability to identify ideas and create forms that are personally enjoyable.

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Students who abandon traditional jewelry design to explore the realm of their own likes and dislikes are moving toward personalizing the medium and its communicative possibilities. This assignment serves that purpose well. The results are always varied because it can be addressed in so many different ways on several different levels. Suspecting that the response to this assignment would range from the nonsensical to the sublime and from mundane observations to personal statements, I was not disappointed.

Robert Farrell, Summer Fort Atkinson, sterling silver, shakudo, teak, 9 x 6 x 6″

About 40 students submitted work. Of these, all but five were undergraduates, although several of the undergraduates indicated that they have degrees in other art areas. Only two pieces were not wearable. The majority were brooches, but both neckpiece and bracelet formats were represented. There were several good pieces submitted that failed to identify “the honored” sufficiently. I suspect that these were not made specifically for this project but were the result of a similar experience.

Melanie Stewart, Comma Brooches, avonite, sterling silver and composite marble, sterling silver, 6.5 x 4.2 x 1.1 cm larger brooch

The assignment required that something ordinary be honored. It needed to be some thing—identifiable—whether tangible or not. It also needed to be ordinary—a common, generic object or an undistinguished or anonymous person. It could relate to an experience or event shared by or familiar to us all. This something ordinary was to be honored, set apart or in some way made to be special. Honor can be bestowed in a number of ways. Glittering or precious materials can be used to elevate the subject. Symbols of esteem, pedestals, neon, arrows or elaborate frames can be employed to denote importance and draw attention. An idea can be abstracted, stylized or transformed into a magnificent shape that transcends simple representation. The selection of subject, how it was represented and the way in which it was honored were the criteria for my choices.

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Iona Zalewska, Last Promotion—A Military Medallion-Pin, copper, silver, 6½ x 2 x ¾”.

One of the greatest difficulties is to simply reproduce the subject in precious material, but, done properly, this approach can also produce the ultimate honor It is probably the insignificance of the comma as anything but punctuation that makes this one of the most sublime and successful submissions. Melanie D Stewart (undergraduate Nova Scotia College of Art and Design), has executed three comma brooches in avonite, copper and marble. It is the quality of the form that is the subject of exploration and honor. The resultant brooches are sensually dimensional and large enough (9 cm) to become an important adornment. Each is subtly different, and the use of stone as well as metal provides each with a different tactile quality.

A direct translation from the mundane to metal is Paulette Parente-Dunlap’s (freshman, Casper College Casper, Wyoming) The Zipper. The partially closed zipper creates an interesting neckpiece format that incorporates both neck and chest. Since this zipper rests on the body, almost where the closing on a piece of clothing would, it changes visually when worn with different types of clothing.

Leah Mulligan, Jeweler’s Torch, sterling silver, bony, pearl, malachite

Leah Mulligans (undergraduate, University of Georgia) Jeweler’s Torch honors what appears to be an old Prest-o-Lite, complete with hose and tank. Although it consists of an object quite faithfully reproduced, the change from torch to bracelet becomes a successful transformation from tool to jewelry). The means become the end. The use of stones and the careful execution of mechanical parts give it a precious quality. Again, the physical characteristics of the honored object lend themselves well to the chosen format. If the zipper were not a neckpiece and the torch were not a bracelet (or other encircling form), the pieces would make much less sense in terms of the assignment.

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I had expected that food would be a major subject for adulation. This was not the case. One group of pieces, however, is worth mentioning. They were submitted by Judith Dykstra-Brown (graduate doing undergraduate work at Cabrillo College), honoring those with an obsession for peanut butter. The pieces were fun, but the title was more so. Peanut Butter—a Circus on a Tired Tongue. Think about it!

Sharon Mehl, Memories of Kansas Bracelet, 4 x 4″

Several of the pieces honored memories. Hair MaiI by Chris Martin (undergraduate, Iowa State University) recalls high school love letters sent via paper airplane. In this case, the missile is hot pink and its use as a hair ornament seems very appropriate. I’d venture that very few people have escaped the embarrassment of being hit in the head by these airborne communications.

Radio Days by Ranger Fenton (undergraduate, Iowa State University) suggests by its composition the “larger-than-life” quality assigned to radio personalities that can only be heard. The shapes used for both radio and listeners, as well as the materials and surfaces suggest a timelessness and conjure up nostalgic feelings that well characterize radio for many of its devotees—then and now.

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Joan Ward Summer, Who Nose, sterling silver, copper, brass, nu-gold, glass beads, fabric, 3½ x 5¼”

Places left temporarily behind, places that take on a different importance and value with absence were the subject of several pieces. Sharon Mehl (undergraduate, San Diego State University) gathers visual reminders in her Memories of Kansas bracelet. It is a wearable copper collage of wheat fields, fences and katydids.

Robert Ferrell (graduate. Tyler School of Art) translates the tranquility and serenity of a Summer in Ft. Atkinson (Wisconsin) into a sensuous neckpiece. This is one of few pieces submitted that honors an intangible subject. The piece contains very little literal information but the forms chosen convey his intent to represent a comfortable, secure, encircling breeze. Other aspects provide details about a special place with a special history. The materials and finishes used assign a unique quality to the object.

Judith Dykstra-Brown, Peanut Butter—A Circus on a Tired Tongue, sterling silver, 1½ x 1½”

Iwona Zalewski’s (graduate University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) Last Promotion is a military-type medallion that uses symbolism to honor a specific event and place it in historical perspective. She does not describe the event, but the white petal shapes and the form above make suggestions. The anonymity of the subject of this piece is curious-intriguing. Another set of pieces that deal with symbolism are Wookyung Park’s (graduate, University of Michigan) Music Notes. These are stick pins that honor various types of music by assigning them symbolic color. Each piece contains a note or notes backed with color. Classical music is blue, jazz is turquoise rock is violet. The idea is sound but would have had more impact if the shapes and surfaces had been used more extensively to explain the differences.

Environmental concerns were expressed by Laurie Clover (undergraduate, Iowa State University) in her brooch Roots of the City. Honored are the trees that are systematically being replaced by more and more concrete and building. The piece contains a delicate skyline above a symbolic root structure. The composition and chosen materials place emphasis and value on the roots. This pieces makes its point very nicely. The importance of rain and is value to drought-stricken California was the subject of an honorary medal by Jessie (Joan) Mitchel (undergraduate, Cabrillo College).

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Laurie Clover, Roots of the City, etched copper, and saw-pierced brass, 9.8 x 11.8 cm

Animals were honored in various ways and for various reasons. Tribute to Willie by Sissy Allen (undergraduate, University of Georgia) tells us in a humorous, affectionate way about her relationship with her dachshund. The bracelet format is perfectly suited to a tall-chasing dog, and cast modeling wax gives it the right quality. Road kills, exotic cats and cows were also honored; cows for their beauty and intelligence and their patience with our ignorance in recognizing these attributes.

The human body provided subject matter for a group of pieces. Rebecca Coldren (undergraduate, University of Michigan) submitted Placenta Box with Chromosomes. This is a serious statement about the importance of decisions surrounding conception. The shapes used are stylized representations of anatomical forms. She effectively uses precious and base metals as well as various patinas to emphasize important elements and convey her message.

Ranger Fenton, Radio Days, brass, copper, marker, 8.2 x 10.2 cm

One of the most humorous submissions was a tribute to the human nose by Joan Ward Summers (graduate doing undergraduate work, Cabrillo College). Thar She Blows and Who Nose are honorary medals combining metal elements with glass beads and fabric. In both cases, the nose is “elevated” by the attendant wings. A few excerpt from her written statement say it all: “I chose to honor the nose for this project because it has been ignored historically in literature poetry and art, i.e., Eyes (‘…and bring all heaven before mine eyes’), lips (‘…with…delight our lips would mingle’), even the ear (‘…as may with sweetness through mine ear’) and the cheek, etc., but no nose. It’s as if humanity is saying, ‘No nose is good nose.’ You may think I am writing this tongue-in-cheek (ah, you see?) but my intention is to rectify 25 centuries of abuse by absence and bring honor and recognition to this overlooked bit of anatomy.”

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By Metalsmith Magazine
Metalsmith Magazine - 1989 Summer
In association with SNAG's
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.
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